Brands as Publishers.

This report gives an overview of developments forcing brands to become publishers, outlines the signs of brand publishing success, and presents the key investments in capabilities needed to get there.

John McCrory
August 12, 2013


Brands today have an unprecedented opportunity to engage with consumers in more and more meaningful ways. The media landscape has been transformed.   The industry has fragmented, digital channels and platforms have proliferated, and social networks have created an expectation among consumers that brands will engage them directly. In such a climate, business and marketing leaders have rushed headlong into publishing—they’d be foolish to stay on the sidelines—but few brands have been successful. One of the major reasons brands fail at publishing is they lack the strategic vision, talent, process, and technical infrastructure required to support the ongoing creation of effective content.

Key Insights:

  • Brands today have an unprecedented opportunity to engage with consumers across proliferating channels and platforms.  Original, authentic content is a prerequisite to success.
  • Consumers expect brands to meet them where they are.  When brands aren’t present on social channels, they are abdicating ownership of and responsibility for consumer sentiment.
  • For a brand to succeed as a publisher, it needs to invest in four areas: process, content, technology, and people. Most brands are lacking in all four.
  • Effective publishing operations require multiple workstreams with dedicated staff, systems and technologies supporting each discrete stream.  This approach enables organizations to produce multiple content types supporting different organizational goals, e.g. evergreen product content, promotional offers, and real-time event-driven content, without having to manage conflicting priorities on a continuous basis.

Key Questions:

  • Why should brands become publishers?
  • What does it mean for a brand to be a publisher?
  • What are the fundamental drivers of publishing success? 
  • How can a brand manage successful publishing operations?
  • What are the key investments in capabilities necessary for success?  

Brands should often bypass traditional media.

Brands can no longer succeed by spending money primarily on traditional media.  Both the production and distribution of content has become increasingly democratized. Advertisers and audiences now have the opportunity to produce and publish their own content and bypass traditional media gatekeepers.  This shift means brands must re-examine their assets, in particular their paid, owned and earned media.

From the advertiser perspective, there is a shift in budget allocation as marketers swing spend away from paid media towards investing in their own content and media (Altimeter Group). The shift in Unilever’s budget from paid media to a greater investment in earned and owned media illustrates how large brands are transforming. Additionally, the distinctions between paid, earned, and owned media are becoming less and less obvious, rendering this traditional model less relevant.

Brands Budgets

Devices, channels, and platforms have multiplied.

Yesterday’s linear consumer purchase path has been replaced by a tangle of different possible routes: a consumer may use search to compare prices online, go to the store to “showroom” a product before buying it online, like and interact with a brand on Facebook, watch a tutorial on YouTube, and consult a much broader social graph for opinions. Or he might follow a combination of some or all of these paths to purchase.

To compete in the market, brands must create content for multiple touchpoints. And their number is ever-expanding: Constant innovation is leading to new devices and consumer contexts all the time, from smartphones and tablets to game and entertainment consoles to self-driving cars and wearable tech like Google Glass. The proliferation of devices means that brands will face new content challenges as form factors, technology, and user behavior may differ on each.


Social engagement raises consumer expectations.

Consumers today actively create awareness about brands and make product recommendations. In turn, they expect brands to engage with them.  With the dominance of social media, consumers expect to be able to communicate directly with brands. More than just getting a response to a tweeted complaint or inquiry, though, consumers expect context, backstory, and even entertainment. Social media is also increasingly looking more and more like paid media. Building a social media presence on Facebook is no longer enough; savvy marketers are also investing in paid media to be seen by fans. All of these developments demand more content.

Social is strongly influencing shopping online.  With users being able to share purchases and visually assemble what they’re interested in, they become curators and influencers of style. While sites like and Pinterest use vivid imagery to showcase both inspirational and aspirational products. and help drive social and curated discovery for style products via friends and tastemakers. Social helps spread a brand across all channels, including their own, where they can engage with consumers.

Pinterest's popularity has forced brands to use high quality, visually rich media assets. Users are creating full boards and collections of products that they would love to own.  They also vie to be the first person to discover a new and beautiful product. Pinterest sites and similar sites rely on image-based discovery, so having compelling product imagery that can live outside of a brand’s own website is becoming a requirement for all high-end style brands.

Changing nature of search.

The shifting structure of search algorithms is beginning to reward good and plentiful content. Essentially more content (usually) means better rankings. Search engines now measure social signals as well to determine search rankings, making citations (not just links), virality, and page authority increasingly important. The more and better content, the better search results.

Fighting to avoid becoming a commodity.

Some brands are losing control both of price and image to third party retailers because of pricing competition online.  As sites like Amazon gain an ever-larger percentage of overall e-commerce traffic, brands face the risk of becoming commoditized and constrained in how they present themselves to consumers. Templates and assets on these sites tend to be restrictive and don’t fully differentiate each brand or explain unique benefits.  Brands that are able to escape this box can once again communicate their value and create desirability for their products.


What are the signs of brand publishing success?

In the rush to publishing, brands have often failed to understand the factors that lead to success and the corresponding organizational and technical adjustments needed to achieve those factors. Most brands will find evolving towards a publishing model that serves both their customer needs and corporate strategy to be a challenge. Huge has identified seven key steps to creating a successful brand publishing strategy:

  • Manage content as an asset. Content can add tangible value to an organization. It also needs maintenance and care. Conducting a content audit is the first step toward understanding a brand's content assets and how to value and maintain them.
  • Have meaningful, useful content for each audience, positioned at each point in the new customer journey. Since most brands serve more than one kind of customer, content needs be created with the different goals of each in mind. As discussed, the customer purchase path today is far more complex than it used to be—more of a loop than the traditional funnel—so brands must develop relevant and engaging content that serves the distinct needs of customers as they progress through each stage of the journey.
  • Be fast: able to create and publish new content in a day or a week. Flexibility in this environment is key. Likewise, streamlining production and approval workflows is essential, if often extremely difficult. Witness Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk In The Dark” tweet during the Super Bowl blackout, or Cap’n Crunch’s “press conference” video in the midst of the brand mascot’s uniform controversy. (Full Disclosure: Cap’n Crunch is a Huge client).
  • Attract and retain the best creative talent. Creating great content requires a great creative team. The kinds of creative talent needed now are not necessarily the usual corporate marketing types. The skills needed–writing and reporting, graphic design, data visualization and multimedia production–may not always exist within a single organization. In some cases, working with a trusted partner may be the most efficient solution. In others, new working environments and management and compensation structures may be needed to attract and retain this new kind of talent.
  • Test, learn, iterate, and publish at an ongoing pace. Content creation, like other digital endeavors, requires optimization. Rapid testing, learning and publishing on a continuous basis are all signs of success. Creating an infrastructure that supports and produces content on an ongoing basis means that brands need to act more iteratively than most are accustomed to. Creating popular, shared content is a little like capturing lighting in a bottle. It’s hard to predict and difficult to sustain, but striving for a flexible, adaptable content culture is necessary. Additionally, brands need to think of themselves, as well as their content endeavors, as a service rather than product. This demands greater ongoing engagement with users and audiences, sometimes on an individual basis, and listening to their needs.
  • Align the content strategy with the overall mission. While most brands are familiar with the peaks and valleys of a media plan, shifting towards a publishing model requires an “always on” approach. Brands should first step back and assess how the content strategy aligns with overall business objectives. Content should support the overall mission of the company and serve users. Is the objective to build brand awareness or affinity? Is it to sell a product? To get subscribers? What media types and channels are most appropriate to achieve the prescribed goals?  All subsequent decisions—about tools, partners, and technologies—will flow subsequently from this foundational content strategy.
  • Shift measurement approach from advertising to publishing metrics. For a brand to effectively act like a publisher, measurement also needs to change. Traditional online advertising metrics such as impressions and click through rates matter less, while publishing metrics such as page views, unique visitors, repeat visitors, and time spent begin to matter more. Social metrics, such as likes, shares, comments, volume of traffic from social media channels, and share of voice also take on increased importance. Measurement metrics should align with the overall strategy and objectives. Determining the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in the early planning stages will help align metrics to understand what kind of content resonates with users and what doesn’t.

Invest in people, process, content, and technology.

Achieving this kind of branded content success requires investment in four key capabilities: 

  • Process 
  • Content
  • Technology 
  • People

What are the key investments in capabilities needed to succeed?


Establish multiple workstreams to rationalize content development.

Brands need to create different workstreams with discrete time horizons, and match content assets to each workstream. Brands should create a framework for evergreen, reusable content each quarter, a monthly plan for campaign content, and a blueprint for daily, ephemeral content that includes real-time engagement. The particular time horizons for each workstream will vary. This framework of quarterly, monthly and daily is appropriate for some brands but not necessarily all.

Brands should develop an editorial calendar and establish workflow and content parameters. The editorial calendar and workflow should build in enough flexibility for brands to react to current events, memes, and popular (yet still relevant) stories that emerge online. This is especially essential if a brand is working with an agency partner, so both can act as nimbly as possible in a content environment that moves quickly (such as Twitter).


Develop brand guidelines.

A critical step is developing a brand voice and defining a content playbook. Existing existing brand guidelines need to be adapted and expanded for digital media. Typically, existing guidelines on the proper use of the logo, brand font, and color palette were not created with digital in mind, and often don’t speak to the larger issues of creating content as outlined in this paper. Additionally, brands must ask themselves what kind of content is acceptable and what isn’t? What are the rules for the brand voice? Is the voice and tone authentic to the brand?


It’s also important to remain true to a brand’s essence. A somewhat staid blue chip brand should not attempt to suddenly become the Lady Gaga of the insurance industry, for instance. While humor tends to resonate, particularly with younger audiences, brands should tread carefully with edgy humor. Staying relevant doesn’t automatically translate into comedy. Often, building a content presence is much more about being of service to customers with useful information than demonstrating snarky wit.

Identify and put audiences first. 

Customers are not a monolithic group of users with the same needs and expectations. Creating audience personas helps a brand understand the users it’s trying to reach and their motivations. The persona helps identify the particular personality attributes, desires, and habits of target audiences so that the brand’s value can be communicated to different types of customers effectively.

When developing audience personas, website analytics can provide a rich source of insight into your customers. Combining demographic data with site behavior will help identify the core goals of your audiences–what are they searching for on the brand’s site? What problem are they looking to solve? Which tasks are users succeeding at and which is the brand failing to support? Customer personas based on the real-life data a brand owns enables it to effectively tailor site content to the needs of its customers.

In addition to identifying the key attributes of a target audience, brands must consider where that audience is in the real world, and where it congregates online. On which social media platforms and networks is it is most active–Facebook? Twitter? Reddit? This insight also helps inform what type of content—visuals like infographics or images, video, or long- or short-form content—the target audience will respond to most. Additionally, different audiences will have distinctive sharing preferences, such as email versus Facebook versus pinning or subscribing to feeds. 

Knowing where and how the target audiences consume and share content is essential to developing a focused content strategy.

Each workstream develops unique content.

Each workstream in the framework produces different types of content. Evergreen content includes product and service descriptions, legal terms and conditions, and content for new categories or audiences. Monthly content is more campaign-focused, tied to product launches, PR initiatives or long-form features. Daily content focuses on topical, time-sensitive stories and social media responses.


Amplify content via earned and paid media.

Even if a brand invests heavily in technology and staffing resources, and produces a beautifully-crafted, steady stream of on-message content, there is no guarantee the target audience will see it. Promotion is critical to ensuring it is not only seen and read by the target audience, but also shared amongst a brand’s fan and influencers.

Brands need to identify the tastemakers within their target audience, those who wield disproportionate influence on their readers, followers and fans. Figuring out who the influencers are isn’t always easy and requires research, which includes looking at how aligned their content and tone are with a brand’s central message.

Brands also need to use paid media such as promoted tweets, sponsored stories, native advertising, and even display ads to promote their content. “Brands still seem to believe that if you build it, they will come,” explains Huge Community Manager Andrew Cunningham.


Invest in technology for production and content management.

Building the technological foundation for publishing requires more than an investment in a content management system (CMS) or digital asset management (DAM) system. The marketing team should be a stakeholder in the tool selection, ensuring the functional requirements meet its needs for producing, collaborating on, and distributing content. As a brand builds a library of content, tools that help plan, document, and track stories are needed. For brands with global reach, this need is even more profound, and includes the ability to track the origin language. Regular content audits will help brands document what assets they own, where within the organization it resides, and who “owns” it.

The future of content publishing: The emergence of content APIs.

The future of content distribution lies in content APIs. An API, or application programming interface, is a simple way for two or more applications to communicate in a common language. An API is most often used as a way to transfer data between applications (such as scores, stock market tickers or Facebook status updates) but the idea is now being applied to robust content.

Content APIs have been tricky to develop because it requires not just transferring data but also interpreting its meaning and the taxonomy of content. A content API goes beyond simple tags that show where a title, subheads and main content are located, giving context to that data. It allows developers to distribute more information, more rapidly, in new and different ways. Today more publishers are using content APIs, especially as devices proliferate. The New York Times, NPR and The Guardian are just a few publishers using them. While the use of a content API is nascent (even for media companies), expect its growth to be fueled not just by traditional publishers but also brands looking for more efficient and powerful ways to distribute their content.

Each workstream relies on technology.

The established technology infrastructure of most non-media brands was not designed for publishing, but for control. Brand marketers often discover that the capabilities required for their most important marketing objectives, such as good personalization and segmentation, rapid A/B and multivariate testing, or multichannel publishing, are not well-supported by the company’s central technology stack. Instead, they are forced to rely on an ad hoc patchwork of systems.

In particular, most content management systems are primarily built to create web pages, not to provide the full spectrum of content offerings possible across multiple channels.

There will likely never be one technology platform to rule them all, so to become effective publishers, brands need to deploy the appropriate technology within each content workstream. The key is organizing existing systems into rational information workflows so that each workstream team can efficiently gather, create, and publish its content.



Align the organizational structure to meet growing content requirements.

Today, many brands use an ad hoc organizational structure with content ownership fragmented across the company. So, for example, corporate communications may “own” social media channels like Instagram or Tumblr, while marketing may run the Facebook and Twitter accounts (sometimes sharing responsibility with customer service), and the digital department manages not just the brand’s website but also its YouTube videos. Not only is there wasted and duplicative effort, but often conflicting messaging as well.

Too often, businesses are assigning content duties to already over-taxed and under-trained staff. One way of addressing this staffing dilemma is through the use of a trusted partner or agency. Given the dynamic nature of social content (often it’s the real time interaction that gets the biggest response), choosing a partner that is able to smartly embody the brand voice is paramount. That partner must also be given the latitude to engage with fast-breaking current events and pop cultural events to ensure the brand can build cultural capital through content.

Overcoming legal impediments.

One of the biggest barriers to creating a timely flow of content is the legal approval process most corporations have in place. The problem is that while approval procedures were established to mitigate risk and ensure compliance (especially in highly regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals and financial services), it was also developed to serve the marketing and content process in an analog world. Digital requires greater fluidity and fast reaction times, so requiring legal approval for every piece of content is not only unwieldy, it’s unreasonable. (The exception to this rule may be brands in those highly-regulated industries.)

To overcome these roadblocks, businesses need to carefully consider how legal is incorporated into each workflow for content. One potential solution is to assign dedicated legal staff to approve topics for each distribution channel. This can be a single lawyer (either on staff or consulting), or a team of legal experts. Creating an internal task force to offer consolidated feedback on content can shorten approval lag times.

The most critical factor is that there is a dedicated legal resource that doesn’t change from week to week. A shifting legal team can result in conflicting policies, gaps in technological knowledge, and inconsistent feedback.

Each workstream has a team.

One of the challenges a brand faces with multiple content workstreams is allocating talent appropriately. Too often, immediate content needs (particularly when there is a communications crisis) override long-term ones. By staffing each workstream with its own team (even if there is sometimes overlap), a brand can ensure the content needs of each workstream are appropriately addressed and executed.



The opportunity to engage with consumers directly is relatively unprecedented. Not only do consumers increasingly expect it, but there are compelling systemic reasons why brands should produce relevant, engaging content, including shifts in search and social algorithms, the fragmentation of the media landscape, and the explosion in potential customer touchpoints. Most brands are ill-equipped as currently configured to meet consumer content demands, but by investing in the four critical components of process, content, technology, and people, brands can successfully evolve to meet the new consumer demand for direct engagement and meaningful content. Establishing a process of multiple workstreams sets the foundation. Aligning staff, technology, and content across these workstreams is the best way to ensure success as brands become publishers.

With Marissa Gluck, Director, Huge Ideas, and Tom O'Reilly, Director, Huge Content.

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